Prosecutors working for Jack Smith, the special counsel who has twice brought indictments against former President Donald J. Trump, obtained a search warrant early this year for Mr. Trump’s long-dormant Twitter account as part of their inquiry into his attempt to overturn the 2020 election, according to court papers unsealed on Wednesday.
The warrant, which was signed by a federal judge in Washington in January after Elon Musk took over Twitter, now called X, is the first known example of prosecutors directly searching Mr. Trump’s communications and adds a new dimension to the scope of the special counsel’s efforts to investigate the former president.
The court papers, which emerged from an appeal by Twitter challenging a part of the judge’s decision to issue the warrant, did not reveal what prosecutors were looking for in Mr. Trump’s Twitter account, which the tech company shut down for nearly two years soon after the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
But the papers indicate that prosecutors received permission from the judge not to tell Mr. Trump for months that they had obtained the warrant for his account. The prosecutors feared that if Mr. Trump learned about the warrant, it “would seriously jeopardize the ongoing investigation” by giving him “an opportunity to destroy evidence, change patterns of behavior [or] notify confederates,” the papers said.
Mr. Trump quickly responded to the news about the warrant on his own social media site, Truth Social.
“Just found out that Crooked Joe Biden’s DOJ secretly attacked my Twitter account, making it a point not to let me know about this major ‘hit’ on my civil rights,” he wrote. “My Political Opponent is going CRAZY trying to infringe on my Campaign for President.”
The existence of the warrant was earlier reported by Politico.
The fact that prosecutors quietly obtained a judge’s permission more than seven months ago to peer into Mr. Trump’s Twitter account underscores how much of the special counsel’s work may have taken place out of public view. Much of the investigation into Mr. Trump’s efforts to maintain his grip on power and into his other federal case — the one related to his handling of classified materials — has been conducted in front of federal grand juries, which operate under strict rules of secrecy.
In the chaotic period between the election and Jan. 6, Mr. Trump’s Twitter account was one of the country’s most prominent platforms on social media, with millions of followers. That prosecutors asked for a warrant to search the account suggests they wanted specific company data or were interested in some nonpublic aspect of the account — though it remains unclear precisely what that may have been.
As part of their sprawling investigation into election interference, prosecutors have seized cellphones and other electronic devices from some of Mr. Trump’s close aides and lawyers. Those included at least two people identified as the former president’s co-conspirators in the indictment against him filed this month: John Eastman, a lawyer who advised Mr. Trump on a plan to pressure his vice president, Mike Pence, into throwing the election his way at a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, and Jeffrey Clark, a Justice Department loyalist whom Mr. Trump sought to install as acting attorney general.
The election charges filed against Mr. Trump accuse him of three overlapping conspiracies to defraud the United States, to disrupt the certification of the election at a proceeding at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and to deprive people of the right to have their votes counted.
Mr. Trump’s relentless use of Twitter is detailed several times in the indictment.
The indictment notes, for instance, how Mr. Trump used Twitter on Dec. 19, 2020, to summon his followers to Washington on Jan. 6 for what he described as a “wild” protest. The message ultimately served as a lightning rod for both far-right extremists and ordinary Trump supporters who descended on the city that day, answering Mr. Trump’s call.
The indictment also describes how Mr. Trump used Twitter in the run-up to Jan. 6 to instill in his followers “the false expectation” that Mr. Pence had the authority to use his role in overseeing the certification proceeding at the Capitol “to reverse the election outcome” in Mr. Trump’s favor.
On Jan. 6 itself, Mr. Trump continued posting messages on Twitter that kept up this drumbeat of “knowingly false statements aimed at pressuring the vice president,” the indictment said. Ultimately, when Mr. Pence declined to give in to the pressure, Mr. Trump posted yet another tweet blaming the vice president for not having “the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution.”
One minute after the tweet was posted, the indictment said, Secret Service agents were forced to evacuate Mr. Pence to a secure location. And throughout that afternoon, it added, rioters roamed the Capitol and its grounds, shouting chants like “Traitor Pence” and “Hang Mike Pence.”
The court papers revealing the warrant for Mr. Trump’s Twitter account emerged from the company’s efforts, under Mr. Musk, to challenge the nondisclosure provision barring Twitter from telling Mr. Trump it was complying with the government’s demands.
There was an extensive legal battle in Federal District Court in Washington this winter before Judge Beryl A. Howell between lawyers for Twitter and prosecutors from the Justice Department concerning the provision. Ultimately, Twitter not only lost the fight but also was found to be in contempt of court and fined $350,000 for delaying complying with the warrant.
Twitter then took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which upheld the lower court’s ruling and unsealed its decision on Wednesday.
In its initial motion challenging the nondisclosure provision, Twitter tried to argue that prosecutors had violated the company’s First Amendment rights by seeking to keep officials from communicating with Mr. Trump, one of its customers.
The company also asked to delay complying with the warrant until the issues surrounding the provision were resolved. Otherwise, it claimed, Mr. Trump would not have a chance to assert executive privilege in a bid to “shield communications made using his Twitter account.”
Judge Howell decided against the company, ruling that the warrant was “an unambiguous court order.” She also held Twitter in contempt for breaking the deadline set for answering the warrant.
Prosecutors asked Judge Howell to impose sanctions on Twitter, suggesting fines that would “accrue at a geometric rate,” the court papers said, starting at $50,000 a day and doubling every day after.
In a swipe at Mr. Musk, Judge Howell adopted that suggestion, “noting that Twitter was sold for over $40 billion and that its owner’s net worth was over $180 billion,” the papers said.
In the end, Twitter missed a second deadline for complying with the warrant but eventually handed over the data that was demanded at 8:06 p.m. on Feb. 9, the papers said.